• Sutradhar Blog

The Indefinite Blackout on Stage

Research and Writing: Surabhi Kulkarni

Curation and Editing: Toshal Gandhi

Oh, Dear Lord! Why would somebody even think of eating BATS?!!"

"The Lockdown Is Extended."

"Tai! I can't see you dancing!! I am facing network issues!!!"

"Oh, Dear Lord! Why would somebody even think of eating BATS?!!"

This had become a normal conversation at Ruhi’s house. Ruhi Bhagwat, a 20-year-old was on the video call with her dance teacher. While this was unusual, learning Kathak on a video call, artists refused to stop even though the world calls for everyone to stop.

"Is the blame-game really helping you Ruhi?" Mrs. Bhagwat asked. "I can't even go to my dance class Maa!! Nor can attend any of the programs. It's all their fault!", Ruhi continued to complain. "Now that you have ample time at hand, why don't you dig deep in this matter and see if you can connect the dots between the pandemic and performing arts in our country." "Oh even better! write about it!" Mrs. Bhagwat winked and left the room.

When asked to write something on performing arts in today’s times, Ruhi was perplexed, even a tad irritated. How many such write-ups would follow, she wondered – sports in the time of corona, fashion in the time of corona, literature, visual arts, the list could go on. Especially as we live in a time when everything seems to be up for grabs, a commodity for sale. Tragedy or crisis – all could be packaged and consumed. That feeling, however, passed when she sat down and dug deeper into the reality of What’s really going on in the performing arts sector in this time of The Pandemic.

Following was the result of Mrs. Bhagwat’s push to Ruhi.

Pandemic and Performing Arts

Multifaceted culture and heritage of India, in a true way, is the biggest asset of the country which marks its origin since the beginning of time. Blissfully, the country still preserves it. Performing arts, being an intrinsic part of Indian culture and heritage, has been celebrated in the country for thousands of years. The Indian traditional classical arts still hold a strong position in the country and traveled through foreign countries as well. We can see a number of people pursuing these kinds of arts around us. Festivals like Bhimsen Joshi Sawai Festival, Chembai music Festival, Khajuraho Dance Festival, Natyanjali Dance festival and a lot of them showcases Performing arts on a national level platform. Serendipity Arts Festival, Kala Ghoda Festival includes multi-disciplinary arts along with Performing arts. Theatre is another great asset of Indian performing arts and the spread of theatre around the country is evident. Events like Sunburn, NH7 weekender, Mood Indigo have created their own print on the youth generation of the country.

The rural area in India, too, a powerhouse of performing arts. Dandiya, Ghoomar, Bhangra, Garba, Yakshagana, Tamasha, (and the list can go on), fall under the Folk art category. Each of them, so colorful and multi-hued rituals that showcase talent like nothing else. Be it music, dance or theatre, every form of performing art in India is known for its uniqueness and symbolizes its age-old rich tradition.‘Kirtaan’ is one such traditional performing arts. Indian performing arts have been changing their presentational form for centuries. Initially, it was being performed in temples, then it shifted to the court, in front of kings and now on stage, for the spectators. Overall we all are familiar with how The Performing arts has become an indivisible part of us.

There is no faculty in the Indian economic ecosystem which hasn't been affected by the current COVID-19 crisis. The performing arts faculty, for many obvious reasons, has been hit hard. The Pandemic created an immediate and disastrous impact on the most fragile part of the value chain - Artists; in urban areas as well as rural.

Stories, of Art, from Artists

As a part of a survey conducted by us, around 90 people who are Performing artists, non-artists, people who are behind the curtains, etc. in any age group category were asked, ‘how they are keeping up with the new reality with reference to performing arts’.

As we all know the pandemic created an impact on society in a large manner, the performing arts being an indivisible part of us, it affected these arts as well. The survey showed the same.

News Laundry, an online media publication covered a few stories of artists and how the pandemic has affected their art and life. Here are a few excerpts from their article:

“The industry was the first to shut and will be the last to open. And looking at the current situation, live events won’t happen for a very long time,” said Mourjo Chatterjee, in an article by News Laundry. He runs an artist management company, On Stage Talent, in Mumbai. “We had to cancel roughly 50 shows that were booked. A few clients were good enough to tell us to keep the advances, the rest we paid back.”

The real charm of performing arts is its live presentation in front of the audience, which now is restricted due to nationwide lockdown.

Since the lockdown was imposed, Kathak maestro Shovana Narayan has been doing online talks and posting videos of performances by her and her students. She did her last live show on March 16. She was scheduled to do three more shows in March, eight in April, and three in May. All were canceled. Narayan pointed out that while “established self-employed artists” might be able to live off their savings, the industry’s “other layers” were going through a rough patch. “For the front rankers, their savings will see them through. Then we have second rankers, whose savings can see them through as well. But we also have so many supporting musicians who are dependent on recordings or live programs for daily bread,” she explained.

“And these people are not very big names. Folk artists, for example, are often not very big names so they don’t have enough savings. On top of it, they have families where they perhaps are the only earning member. So folk artists are as badly affected as people in supporting roles. And what about light technicians, makeup men, stagehands?”

For now, Narayan noted, performing online was the only option for the artists, and for only some of them. Still, it was no match for a live performance.

Due to the shutdown of transportation, it's highly impossible for the artist to travel and perform the art in various places. This leads to huge losses to the production houses as well as artists due to cancellation of the pre-planned performances.

John Jaideep Thirumalai, a bass player in Mumbai, has been a part of the industry for around 30 years. He was scheduled to perform in a series of 12 concerts in the United States, alongside actor Hrithik Roshan and Kishnakumar Kunnath (KK), starting April 12. Their tour never happened as travel restrictions kicked in. He performed at his last concert on March 12.

“We artists travel a lot. I am out for 250 of the 365 days. But I think that’s going to change," he said. "We will need to have checks and tests before travelling and we might need some other kinds of passes after landing. Now they are saying we need to travel light, so maybe I won’t be able to carry my instrument for concerts and will have to hire one in the city I’m going to. We may witness many other changes post the lockdown."

Art for People, People for Art, What's the Pandemic impact?

As the artists are unable to perform in a public forum, that has disappointed the audience as well. Along with the artists, the audience was also excited about the events like Ultra Music Festival, Delhi Literature Festival, Saanchari Film Festival which they had to cancel. ‘Stand-up comedy’ which is an attraction of youth of India is also a part of performing arts. Events like ‘Pune Comedy Festival 4.0’ were postponed due to this. Not being able to watch and enjoy the performing arts has saddened the audience. 'It was a stress buster and at the same time providing positive energy. It was like meditation', some say. They are unable to get these benefits.

Social distancing made professional training restricted to virtual level. Practicing in front of your teacher is an essential part of the performing arts. Due to this crisis, people are unable to attend classes in person. There are various performing arts in the country which are to be performed in a troupe. The social distancing has made it impossible to execute this for a very long time. Classical dancing, singing, acting and other forms of performing arts that survive and thrive on physical and social interactions, such as teachers giving inputs and correcting the flaws; students questioning and clarifying doubts, all came to an abrupt halt due to COVID-19. The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent nationwide lockdown swiftly brought the curtains down on live performances and cultural offerings everywhere, putting paid to what was already a tenuous means of livelihood for many.

The commercial aspect has gone for a toss. Due to people's ignorance & fear about Covid-19 theatre has a bleak future as of now. Majority of urban areas have been looking at the performing arts commercially. The pandemic called for an unusual economic loss in the commercial community. Due to the closures, revenues for cultural organisations reliant on ticket sales caused devastating effects upon revenues, with consequent impacts upon organisational staffing, and on independent artists and professionals. This is due to the fact that Arts and Culture is a sector of national economies characterised by particularly a high proportion of self-employment. Cancellation of prestigious festivals, Jatras, gatherings in urban as well as rural areas is another hit for commercial performing arts.

Changing Art Grounds, Evolving, Adapting, Impacting.

However, who says art can’t flourish in the days of Coronavirus. Just like a coin has two sides, the pandemic has proven to have a flip side too. A few weeks into the announcement of cutting social contact, the innovative arts industry in India improvised and went online. Internet is something that became a part of Urban society in no time and people are staying connected with the help of it. There are a number of artists showcasing their art online through social media sites like Facebook, Instagram. Digital platforms are being used for creative learning such as dance and music.

There is another advantage, as both teachers and students are able to archive the lessons and go back to it again in case of doubts. The same applies for the audience as they are able to view the online performances as many times as they want and also according to their own time schedules.

The abundant time in people’s hands is making them more artistic not only about the art but also about the elements of the performance. For e.g. costumes, makeup, background and music. Exploring with the material available people are trying to show their creativity through it. Contemporary performing styles are evolving according to contemporary needs. Due to digital platforms the performing arts in these areas have shown all types of collaborations. We can see theatre artists coming up with a piece along with the musicians by their side, of course on the side screen! The Guitar player and a singer is our all-time favorite combo. The pandemic couldn’t stop this duo and many like them to bring in their art for us. Many have expressed that they look forward to such online classes in the future to break the monotony, but some still prefer the traditional method of teaching and learning which has its own merits of social interaction and communication.

Art is something that never fails to soothe the mind and body during a calamity. It has once again emerged as a healer and also as a weapon to spread awareness about coronavirus that has been causing illness and death across the world.

Various performing artists have joined hands with authorities in reaching out messages to people on how to cope with the virus. Well-known dancer-choreographer Anita Ratnam recently posted a ‘20-second konnakol handwash’ on her Facebook. Aptly illustrated, it starts with TaDiTa as you place your hands under the pipe and ends with ‘Ta’ as you wipe the hands dry

“We look at art usually from the entertainment point of view, it is during such trying times that we realise its true purpose of connecting souls and bringing succour when little else can. I am a great believer in the power of art. It can inspire, transform, protect and guide. From Tyagaraja to Beethovan, the best works of all great composers and most artistes have emerged out of adversity,” says Veena exponent Saraswathi Ranganathan.

But there is no doubt that virtual learning in the sphere of performing arts has carved a niche for itself in the time of COVID-19 and is here to stay.

A dancer wearing a mask frames the Colosseum, in the background, that has been closed in Rome | Photo Credit: Alfredo Falcone.

Art, Artists and Pandemic in Urban and Rural Areas

The problems that performing arts faculty in urban and rural areas are facing are exactly opposite to each other. The survey shows that the spread of performing arts in urban area is becoming more digitalized and in rural areas its making minor changes still going steady.

As we all are aware of the fact that the life after pandemic is going to be different, The performing arts sector is also going to undergo a change. New avenues will open up for teaching, learning and presenting. We will have social media as not only our promotion platforms but also performing platforms. In tough times like these, the nation has stood strong unanimously. Even the performing arts community is coming together and finding their way through this pandemic, which is evident in the survey as well. Various performing art streams are collaborating for creative content while staying in their homes and taking every precaution needed. Even though the pandemic affected the performing arts stream it didn't hamper the spread of performing arts in the country. A lot of communities are being formed to help and support the artists to publish and promote their art on digital platforms.

NCPA has planned to take the performing arts to patrons in the safety of their homes. The social media pages of the organisation will be updated with videos of its popular ‘Meet the Maestro’ series in Indian music, lecture–demonstrations in diverse genres, dance workshops, Symphony Orchestra of India season highlights, etc.

The Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur city was established by the Rajasthan government in 1992 to promote the state’s artists. The centre has taken some of its activities online. The annual Children's Summer Festival, for example, will feature an online course each on the visual arts and the performing arts. In other years, the festival would include a minimum of 16 courses, the theatre course being the most popular. The centre has trained several prominent artists over the years, including Anuranjan Sharma and Gagan Mishra.

Pages such as Arts from India (Facebook), Theatron, Viculp Watchparty (Facebook), Aalap (Instagram - @aalaap-concerts ), Sutradhar (Instagram - @sutradharindia) etc. are helping the audience to get entertained and staying connected with the artists and the art.

The survey showed that 60% of people think that the industry might face a huge setback. People will be apprehensive in taking part in huge gatherings, sitting so close to one another in theatres and auditoriums will be found risky and unreliable. We will need to make short-term accommodations for social distancing, but it’s not a necessity to change the gathering places for a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

The period after the Spanish flu of 1918 saw one of the largest theatre-building booms in history, and they didn’t go out of their way to prevent human to human contact. Between 1918 and 1928, the number of Broadway theatres increased from 48 theatres to 76. In fact, these buildings boast some of the tightest lobbies and auditoria per person of any through history. The concept of ‘Open theatre’ might take a place. It is important to provide a more sanitary experience for doorkeepers, staff, and performers alike. For e.g. touchless bathroom doors, hand sanitizer stations at entries, and the use of more anti-microbial coatings and surfaces in heavily touched areas. It can also be used on seat arms. While seats have been getting wider over the last few years, we still use shared arms in rows of seats. In the future, perhaps each chair should have two arms of its own maintaining proper distance.

The art forms might be established over social media platforms and such. The new era of digitalized entertainment is at the horizon. This is a moment in which the steps we take now could or should support an advance into change rather than restoration of the previous. As we emerge, we must resist rolling the clock back on change, especially in relation to diversity and inequality as well as dangerous insecurities of livelihood. We should rethink how performing artists’ future can be reimagined, the policy and industry response must go beyond existing public arts and cultural funding, policy and funded institutions. We often hear it said that if you were to start again, you wouldn’t start from here. Maybe, this is the moment where we could start again. The artists who will learn to be in sync with this tide, will see great opportunities to explore their art and still follow their passion.

As Rajeswari Ramachandran, producer of Kalaa Utsavam says, "Something as simple as playing an audio of the tanpura can bring solace and peace in a situation where things are unpredictable and chaotic." And I couldn't agree more. As faith and prayers are the hope for better times, the arts can definitely be the support system for getting through tough times.

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